The City of Raleigh sued the state earlier this month for extending a permit that allows failed septic systems to continue discharging pollution into Falls Lake.
The permit allows residents with failed septic systems or who do not have soils suitable for septic systems to use a sand filter discharging system that is intended to treat household wastewater and sewage. In a suit filed in an administrative court last week, the city argues that the new permit violates the Clean Water Act.
According to Susan Massengale, state division of water quality (DWQ) public information officer, “these systems discharge into water, usually a pipe into a stream.”
The Effect of Failed Systems
Failed systems discharge nutrient-rich water into Falls Lake and its tributaries, leading to excessive algae growth and higher drinking water-treatment costs.
In 2009, the DWQ estimated that as many as 15 percent, or 5,325 of the septic systems in the Falls Lake watershed, have failed. A 2010 state study put that number at more than 1,000. A lack of required inspections and tracking has led to the ambiguity.
In 2011, the Falls Lake Rules became law to reduce and prevent nutrient pollution. According to a study completed by the state, septic systems and sand filter discharge systems contribute as much as 15 percent of all nutrients to the lake—making them the third highest source of nitrogen and fourth for phosphorus, the two nutrients regulated under the rules.Failed System Permits
The permit in question, previously authorized for five years and extended for one year in July, covers around 500 homeowners, Massengale said.
Dan McLawhorn, with the Raleigh city attorney’s office, said many older discharging systems are not even under the permit. There are as many as 3,000 in the watershed—the city and county of Durham have counted 2,067.
According to Massengale, however, the state lists only around 750 discharging systems in DWQ’s Raleigh region, with 500 of those in the Falls Lake watershed. The state inspects more than 120 of these systems per year—meaning the systems listed on the general permit would be inspected every six years. She added that the state investigates reports of failing systems.
The reason there are so many sand discharging systems in the Falls Lake watershed is because of the prevalence of Triassic Basin soils—highly erodible soils that do not drain well enough to allow installation of a traditional septic system drain field.
According to McLawhorn, homeowners covered under the state’s general permit pay $60 for a certificate of coverage. The certificate is often issued the same day as requested, and does not require an inspection—allowing failed systems to continue discharging nutrients into the lake.
The city argues that this permit, that does not include inspection and enforcement provisions, violates the Clean Water Act of 1972. McLawhorn said the city would like the same “standards to be applied for the people under the permit that they would have to have under an individual application.”
Individual discharge permit applications cost $860 and require an inspection. McLawhorn said the city does not care if the fee is charged, only that the inspections happen.
The city’s complaint, filed Aug. 10, claims that DWQ did not follow proper procedures in renewing the permit that covers these discharging systems, did not follow the procedures required by the state Environmental Management Commission, did not incorporate changes recommended by the EPA, and did not file in accordance with time restrictions.
The permit itself, they say, also violates EPA regulation regarding treatment of sewage discharge and violates the requirements of the Falls Lake Rules.
“Essentially the permit is wrong for the Falls Lake basin and the nutrient reduction required by the Falls Lake rules,” McLawhorn said.
Under the Falls rules, the local governments have until 2021 to remediate all nutrient sources added since 2006. The new development restrictions were adopted in July.
“We just last month stopped adding new sources of nutrients,” McLawhorn said.
Now the local governments are focused on inventorying and reducing nutrient pollution from existing sources—including septic systems.
Drew Cummings, assistant manager of Durham County, said, “We are responsible for the loading of the sand discharging systems, even though we don’t have authority over them. If we could go in and inspect and require updates, we could be masters of our own destiny.”
Traditional septic systems are regulated by the county while discharging systems, including those covered under the permit, are regulated by the state.
Durham County officials sent letters to the head of DWQ, Chuck Wakild, and the governor’s office expressing their concerns.
“For the state to put these rules on us and then turn around and avoid them themselves is just silly,” Cummings said. “If they can’t comply with their own rules, they shouldn’t demand it of anyone else.”
The Cost of Clean
Mandatory inspections are not popular. In 2011, Wake County attempted to implement a five-year septic system inspection requirement. Residents spoke out against the idea and in October of 2011 the county Human Services Board voted to remove the law, in spite of the fact that a study showed 10 percent of Wake County residents’ systems were failing and leaking 1 million gallons of sewage per day into the environment.
Even though inspections and regular maintenance can prevent and be less expensive than major repairs, many homeowners don’t want or can’t afford the burden.
However, residents connected to city water and sewer pay as well to comply with nutrient rules. McLawhorn said residents on city sewer absorbed the cost “when Raleigh paid over $100 million to upgrade the wastewater discharge plant” to comply with the Neuse Estuary nutrient reductions.
If the lake does not improve, Raleigh will have to spend $125 million to add improved filtration systems to the E.M. Johnson drinking water plant.
Cummings said many of these discharging systems are owned by people with lower incomes.
“There may be a 5, 10, 15, or $20,000 solution, but there may not be any funding from them or anyone else to execute the plan,” he said. “The same issue exists when city water and sewer is available.”
That creates a situation, Cummings said, “where telling somebody we are not going to renew your permit is getting close to an eviction notice, which creates a really large political problem if it is not happening to one or two people, but dozens, hundreds.”